Wallace Stevens and Mere Things

1. :There is a man whose work makes most of us quail. His technical subtleties alone provide a great amount of interest" Hart Crane,1919, Collected Letters , Univ.of Calif..Press Berkeley 1965

2. "How do we perceive reality in a universe in which God cannot be assumed to be pantheistically present ? In a sense [Wallace] is the poet as philosopher, and his poems consistently deal with the way in which things outside the self resist meaningful definition, and how poetry and imagination - the supreme fiction - are primary and truthful instruments of comprehension - are in fact the highest way of knowing." Malcolm Bradbury The Penguin Companion to Literature , Penguin Harmondsworth 1971.

3. " Marian Moore, William Carlos Williams and Stevens were all preoccupied with the question of what poetry could do, or might do, by way of elevating mere `things' to the level of imaginative reality." F.J.Hoffman, The 20's , Collier Macmillan London 1965.

4.Stevens (1879 -1955) is writing he says, "The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice. It has not always had/ To find : the scene was set ; it repeated what / What as in the script./ Then the theatre was changed/ To something else. Its past was a souvenir."

The Emperor of Ice Cream

( from Harmonium, 1923)

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Points to be raised.


1. the meaning of the line "Let be be finale of seem" ; Being and Seeming.
2. the identity and configuration of the emperor.
3. the significance of ice cream.
4. the concealment of the corpse.
5. the diction of the piece, rhythms and structures.
6. the balance of imagery in parts one and two, some remarks on Stevens and the Visual Arts.
7. concupiscent, "lustful- carnal - sensual" Funk and Wagnell Dictionary.

Other Stevens poems you might read eventually,
Peter Quince at the Clavier,
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,
Sunday Morning,
The Man with the Blue Guitar,
Notes towards a Supreme Fiction.

"There are no conditions (and this is the point central to his aesthetics) in which the perfect relationship between the poet and his reality is fully attainable, because of the mutability of the world, and of the imagination. What he can propose is that there is an idea of order, a contained set of conditions within which the modern poet can work." Bradbury, as above.


Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems , Faber and Faber London 1987.
H.Haughton, The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry , Chatto & Windus London 1988 p.358.
Thomas J.Hines, The Later Poetry of Wallace Stevens , Assoc.Univ Press, London 1976.
Bradbury and Macfarlane, Modernism (Penguin Guides to European Literature) , Penguin Harmondsworth 1976, see Ellman Crasnow, "Poems and Fictions : Stevens, Rilke, Valery."
Holly Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, New York 1966.